One man's war, waged against the inevitable

Published Dec. 14, 1999|Updated Sept. 30, 2005

Steve Morris' fight is noble, but like the Bucs of old, doomed. I didn't try to tell him. Steve, a dark-eyed fountain of facts about the rules, such as they are, about growth and development in Hillsborough County, is a little obsessive about his cause _ keeping his little corner of what's left of rural Hillsborough rural.

His little corner is called Keystone, and he is the president of the civic association. In this part of Hillsborough, you have to drive several miles to find a Publix or a Kash n' Karry. If there is an ATM machine around, I missed it. Instead, cows graze during the day, and stars glow in a night sky unlit by shopping centers and headlights.

For a guy who's an air conditioning contractor, the stars make Steve Morris pretty lyrical. "On a clear night, you could lay out on my lawn on a blanket and just stick your hand out and grab the stars."

He does not get lyrical about convenience stores. One has him fighting mad, even though it exists only on an architect's blueprint. The Southland Corp. _ which all but invented the convenience store and its shoe box of a building, the lights harsh enough for a police interrogation room, the overpriced aspirin and paper towels _ wants to erect a 7-11 at Gunn Highway and Racetrack Road.

You may think worse assaults have been carried out against the Florida landscape. Disney World comes to mind. But this fight against the 7-11 carries its greatest weight as a symbol, even Steve admits. "It stands for the viability of our way of life." To him, convenience stores stand for Fletcher Avenue, U.S. 19. The worst features of city life.

We are in his coral-carpeted living room. The view out the rear picture window is of swaying sycamore branches and a lawn that slopes down to the oaks edging Lake Keystone. "Do you hear that?" he says of the crushing quiet.

He came here seven years ago, a refugee from what was once the last suburb on North Dale Mabry, Northdale. He had lived there 17 years, a transplant from Virginia, but each year the traffic noise got worse. The nice neighbors left, the not-so-nice moved in. And the stars disappeared.

So Morris and his wife moved to Keystone. He has been president of the civic association for four years, a Don Quixote at the ramparts, jousting with his sword at for-sale signs. They are as common a sight in Keystone as horse jumps and orange trees, a constant reminder of what's coming. Even as Steve Morris fights against the 7-11 _ and another hearing was set for Monday night _ no less than three shopping centers are zoned for nearby Van Dyke Road.

This is why Morris' campaign is doomed. It isn't because there are already a few convenience stores in Keystone that stick out, like plaids adjacent to polka dots, next to street names like Snail's Pace Way. Stopping the creep _ in this economy, the long stride _ of development would require everybody else to think like Steve Morris, and they don't. They want to live under the stars, too, even if prices in the new Northdales start at $200,000.

The Veterans Expressway passes just to the east of Keystone. When you get off the Keystone exit, on Tobacco Road, you look up through the windshield at where the Suncoast Parkway construction is tearing up the sandy earth across the road. Rural? Who said rural?

I left Steve Morris' house and was driving the long and winding two-lane road that is Gunn Highway when I noticed a car on my tail. It was white, may have been an Acura or a Caddy. New, certainly, and flashy. He honked at me, because I wasn't going fast enough for his liking. I was looking for the site of that proposed 7-11. Someday, the county will have to widen this stretch of Gunn Highway. The guy behind me Monday will have all the convenience in the world, and unluckily for Steve Morris, Keystone will look much like every place else. That's when he'll go. He has 10 acres in the woods on the Citrus-Hernando line for when the time comes.